I'm not a Comedian... I'm a Theater Critic
It is Saturday night and I am by far the youngest person in the Byham theater. It’s a little disconcerting actually — I begin to worry about the fact that I do not actually know what this show is going to be about and now about the fact that I do not have a program to tell me. While I might be the only person in a 50-foot radius who knows how to use an iPhone, I am probably also the only person in the same area who does not know who Lenny Bruce was.
Ronnie Marmo is very forgiving of this unfortunate fact. The show he has written to honor the memory of the great 50s comic Lenny Bruce makes me feel like my mother is telling me that, no you have heard of him before. "Remember when we watched that old talk show together on Christmas when you were in the second grade?" "Oh yeah mom, I remember now."
I think one-man shows generally get a pretty bad rep. It was obvious that lighting and sound design were significant considerations in this show, compensating for the sparsity of voices. The choice of jazz for the musical background was really appropriate and set the mood. Prop usage, too, was clever and intentional, especially when it came to the microphone. As a stand-up comedian, Bruce was emotionally close with his microphone, and Marmo embodied that familiarity wonderfully. I would actually argue that this was a two-man show: Bruce and his microphone.
I honestly can’t imagine this show being done in any other format than one-man though; as a person, Lenny Bruce was on his own journey for most of his life. He was his own one-man show. Furthermore, the selected format allowed Marmo to do two really important things that I’ll write about here:
First, Marmo wrote these incredibly smooth transitions into real-life stand up comedy, making the audience feel, almost out of nowhere, like we were sitting in a comedy club in the 50’s. This was an incredibly effective tool especially in setting up Bruce’s character for the remainder of the story, I would say. Marmo, as Bruce, didn’t need to tell us about his comedy career; he showed us, even roaming around off stage. It was a testament to Marmo’s talent too, that he was able to riff off of the audience in an authentic way while remaining in character. It felt almost as if a wall was broken between a telling of the story and a living of its reality. These stand-up scenes served, surprisingly, as comic relief, something I did not think would be necessary but really was.
This brings me to my second point: Marmo’s use of the significant (and female) relationships in Bruce’s life to tell his story. There was something incredibly unique about hearing about Bruce’s relationships from the one-man perspective as opposed to watching other actors portray Bruce’s mother, wife, and daughter. It was more important to the story, and more beautiful, to know how Bruce felt about these people rather than what they were actually like.
Some of the best moments of the show indeed were the painstakingly well-chosen excerpts of speech and writing from Bruce that Marmo included in reference to these people, as well as to Bruce’s particular political opinions and personal values. The writing was poetic and tragic and deeply moving and brought me face to face with Bruce’s most important goals and values. Moments like the comparison of shooting heroin to “kissing God” or the reflection that he has become “every man I hate” after praying to God to save his dying wife were made glowing by the inclusion of deeply true and obviously authentic quotations. My personal favorite was a description of Bruce’s wife Honey: “[...]my every combination of everything […] my mistress, my high priestess.”
I mean, come on.
The writing was truly what kept me engaged during the entire performance, what made magic out of a man on a stage in a suit. I felt like I was in Bruce’s mind, and I suspect that Marmo felt the same way. During a Q&A after the performance (and in his interview for Pillbox, see page PAGE NUMBER) he discussed the depth of his experience with performing as Bruce, which spans over 10 years and 2 different show runs. The show I watched was his 406th performance of “I’m Not A Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce!” An audience member asked about his portrayal of Bruce’s mannerisms, and though I cannot speak to a personal knowledge of Bruce, I was certainly persuaded by Marmo’s delicious Long Island accent and his physical motions and his embodiment of such a complex personality. A man who would be arrested and imprisoned for obscenity, who would divorce the stripper he had married, who would talk for hours about his Jewish mother and sex and the great injustices of American society — this is a man who could only be played by someone with enormous talent and experience, and maybe something more.
Marmo spoke to the audience about his relationship with Bruce’s daughter, Kitty, who according to him, believes that there are greater forces at play in Marmo’s similarities to Bruce. I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for that fate stuff, and Marmo’s performance was convincing enough so as to have me believing it, too.
In the end, Bruce dies of a drug overdose and Marmo rearranges himself into his “tastefully” nude position atop a toilet that has been sitting on the side of the stage for the length of the play, quietly reminding us that he is dust, and unto dust he shall return. Beginning and ending with Bruce’s death was the perfect simple circular plotline to hold all the very complicated details in the center, but Marmo kept it interesting enough that it didn’t feel cliché. It felt as epically tragic as it really was, with police officers arranging a needle back into his dead arm. It felt like Lenny Bruce was not a comedian, as the title “I’m Not A Comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce” suggests. He was an activist, a father, a son. He was just a man.